Why businesses need to become more human

Mike Barry, who heads Marks & Spencer's quest to become the world's most sustainable major retailer, says companies need to behave more like trusted lifelong friends if they are to retain the respect of their customers.

Why businesses need to become more human

Today’s generation of business leaders is uniquely challenged. Technological advancements are constantly changing the way corporates do business, while global competition is more powerful than ever. In addition, organisations are all faced with the growing threat of climate change and resource constraints. However, the overarching challenge that sits above all these factors is how the role of business is defined in the 21st century. One key to companies  meeting this challenge will be their ability to develop a strong brand message that is committed to societal change and environmental protection.

The traditional view of capitalism is that it allocates limited resources as efficiently as possible to those specialists best able to undertake a particular task. Governments provide societal stability and the infrastructure to enable marketplaces to function. In return, business makes a contribution to tax,
employment and, via dividends, to funding future pension liabilities. The result? Companies are reasonably unfettered to pursue the returns they feel they need to satisfy their shareholders. 

That (very loosely) is the western 20th-century settlement – capitalism and the power of companies has been in the ascendancy for decades. Of course, since the financial crisis of 2008, doubts about this settlement have surfaced. Banks, in particular, are relatively more tightly regulated. There is also some dawning realisation that we are running our biggest factory (nature) in a wholly unsustainable way (causing ocean pollution to climate change). But, to all intents and purposes, it is business as usual. 

But this will change – not just because regulators will become more steely, activists more aggressive, employees more picky and consumers better informed (although these trends will all unfold). Change will be unleashed by business itself. 

Companies are in an existential race to transform their relationship with customers. Shifting from functionally servicing consumer need to building an emotional, lifelong, always-on relationship with people. In this world, companies are no longer distant, faceless bureaucracies to be transacted with periodically, but a much-loved, vital member of your family. And, just like a family member, they know how you feel, what you want and when you need it. Even better if you can build this emotional connection before your competition does. The key to this prized "walled garden" is all yours. The competition locked out, customers locked in. 

But wait, an emotional relationship isn’t one-way, it’s two-way. With all this upside comes your share of the emotional compact. Even as a corporation turning over billions and employing thousands, you must become human too. 

Would you want a family member or close friend to be gossiping behind your back (selling your personal data online); abusing people (employng a workforce without rights); littering the street (despoiling the planet); sponging off you (evading taxes)? Of course not. And this is what many companies are failing to see. The tantalising riches of a deep emotional connection with your customers require something in return – a humanity, openness, kindness and friendship that few businesses can offer today.

Here are five elements that a business needs to champion if it is to realise its dream of being your lifelong friend.

  • Make change happen. Don’t sit passively on the sidelines just "taking"; start "giving". Look at how Unilever has stood up and championed the United Nations’ 17 Sustainable Development Goals and the Paris climate change agreement. It didn’t sit waiting for good things to happen, it made them happen. That’s what a friend does.
  • Protect privacy. Treat all the data you gather as if it were about your family. Don’t go selling it off to the highest but least-known bidder and be transparent about your own behaviour too.
  • Cherish where your customers live. Come down off your pedestal, see where they live, the problems they face and help them find solutions.
  • Be proud of your people. Let the public know who they are, what they think. Share your good times and bad times, your insights and solutions.
  • Have a point of view. Don’t be dull, don’t hide and don’t blow in the wind. Have a purpose, a passion and a point of view. 

Clearly, none of this is easy. Companies can serve millions of customers and employees all with a different world view. Of course your views can differ – but in a way that respects, accepts and embraces diversity. And this is the great opportunity for marketers, internal communicators and PR professionals. Humanising business across all that it does – every product, every store and website, every customer interaction, every supply chain – is a massive undertaking, but those who get it right will be the ones who prosper.

There is a massive need and opportunity to make business genuinely human. Seize it.

Mike Barry is director of Plan A at Marks & Spencer

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